Journey to the West, while staying East (Part 1)

China has an unique chance to lead technological revolution in football (and attract most important viewers — their own citizens).

Chinese football fans

One of the most known compound words in the world, originating from English, is— ’’football’’. When you read that word, your thought process could have connected it to many things. But, almost certainly, that was not China. However, as seen by FIFA, cuju, ancient Chinese game, is regarded as the earliest form of football for which there is evidence, being first mentioned in 2nd century BC. Still, that aside, China have no tradition in football whatsoever, participating in just one World Cup (in 2002, with European coach and going out at the group stage without scoring a single goal) and without producing any influential player ever. Yet.

Now, one of the ’’fastest-growing major economies’’, want to become ’’football superpower’’, able to host and win World Cup. However, while on a spending spree, they slowly realized that money can’t buy everything, especially fans, tradition and most influential players who already make so much money that they don’t care about few million more or less. ‘The Cream of the crop’ care about glory, reputation and playing in inspiring environment. On the other hand, fans care about these same things, even more so.

Recently, on the opening of new season, Chinese Super League filled with stars, saw about 25,000 average attendance, which is not in top 5 average attendances in the world, although China is few times more populous then top 5 countries by attendance combined. As they can’t bring many more foreign stars, because of new regulations, only thing that Chinese football association and government can do to change that, is to start making tradition using modern ways, one that Europe don’t yet have, so that it can harvest on it for gaining popularity and influence. But how?

Well, China was a world leader in science and technology for centuries, even millenniums. Ancient Chinese discoveries and inventions, such as papermaking, printing, the compass, and gunpowder, just to name a few, later became widespread in Asia and Europe. However, by the 17th century, the Western world had surpassed China in scientific and technological development, mainly using Chinese inventions for their own advantage. Still, nowadays, science and technology are once more seen as vital for achieving China’s economic and political goals, and are held as a source of national pride to a degree sometimes described as “techno-nationalism”.

China is developing its education system with an emphasis on science and technology and is the world’s second-largest publisher of scientific papers, behind USA. Chinese technology companies such as Huawei and Lenovo have become world leaders in telecommunications and personal computing and China currently has the largest number of active cellphones and the world’s largest number of internet and broadband users. So obvious answer is with — technology.

So obvious answer is with — technology.

Part One

Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR)

China mainly wants to attract football fans throughout Asia but they face one more obstacle and that is attracting their own citizens to go and watch games.

Government plan is to make CSL most popular and followed football league in Asia, creating so-called dislocated fans. ‘‘Dislocated fans’’ are fans of a team that is not from their own region, country or even continent. One of the main problems today in sports, with raising globalisation, is how to attract, keep and give value to this type of fans.

As I mentioned before, scientific progress is currently still lead by one Western country, by U.S. There, Intel is working on a way to make broadcasting games live in VR a reality. At first, they made highlights of 49ers (NFL) and they could broadcast with 2 minutes of delay. But now, they already covered NCAA March Madness (basketball). This is also the first time “virtual tickets” have been sold to March Madness games.

The “Silver” virtual ticket option costs $1.99 per game and gives fans access to a 180-degree courtside view with the same CBS commentary that viewers watching the traditional TV broadcast will hear. The “Gold” option runs at $2.99 per game (or $7.99 for all six games) and gives the fan more flexibility with the option to switch between seven cameras angles, from courtside to the student section to behind the basket. Or, they can sit back and watch professionally-produced VR coverage with dedicated game commentary — meaning reporters and analysts will call the action from the VR perspective. Both ticket options will provide access to virtual brackets, scoreboards, stats, shot charts, and more.

Because Americans don’t really care about football (soccer), there is a chance for China to be leader of that kind of innovation. During weekends, Chinese are occupying bars and pubs, watching mainly English Premier League, while stands on Chinese Super League are not so crowded despite millions of citizens living in a cities where these clubs are playing their home matches. What is notable is, that football broadcasting, including not just game but also delivery and presentation of statistics and other in-play experiences is not following the latest technological trends and innovations. That is a goalscoring chance.

The VR revolution has arrived — and it will be televised, in high-resolution 360 video.

Also, there is Augmented Reality. Although the whole world was immersed in AR technology behind Pokemon Go, very few digital media rights holders are implementing that kind of technology on broadcasts. Clubs are not using it on matchday stadium experience.

Who does that first have a chance to dive into worldwide sea of shorter attention span and curiosity. People easily become accustomed to everything and that include ways in which they watch football. They want deeper understanding of what is going on on the field, mainly based on statistics and replays, but also they don’t want to miss any moment of the game, meaning that broadcasters need to think of new ways of presenting statistics while not disturbing flaw of the game. That’s where Augmented Reality comes onto the field. Literally.

Image: Nick Bush / Tom’s Guide
“In the past, when you needed to throw up a graphic, it would cover up and almost take you away from the action,” Michael Davies (Fox Sports) said. “This allows us to stay in the field of play and keep the audience connected to the game and still get the information up.”

This is very important for football where there is no time-outs and other kind of breaks, other then half-time rest and eventual in-field breaks in case of an injury, while there is a decrease trend in term of how often and how much players are using these kinds of breaks. It’s just a matter of time when advertisers start asking for the AR graphics treatment, increasing the revenue for clubs, while not (really) bothering fans.

Jason Lovell, product manager at Samsung said: “The Utopian vision is walking to your sitting room when a match is on, picking where you want to sit in the stadium, putting on you VR headset and feeling like you are there.”